Sept. 9, 1995: The science of healing is sometimes a mystery

  • Article by: PEG MEIER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 1995 - 10:37 PM

Nikki Anderson's doctor is willing to say the horses that visited her at Gillette Children's Hospital somehow may have played a small part in bringing her out of a coma.

          Nikki Anderson is back to consciousness. Way back.

    When her doctor asked the 12-year-old what her favorite food
is, she said slowly but clearly, "tortellini." Requested by her
grandma to count out loud, she counted to 20 in English and then in
the Spanish she had learned from a friend. And asked what made her
come out of her coma, she said with a grin, "The horses." 

   Her doctor is willing to say the horses  that visited Nikki at
Gillette Children's Hospital somehow may have played a small part in
calming her when she was very sick.

    "But the horses didn't bring Nikki out of a coma," Dr. Mark
Gormley, a brain-injury expert, said emphatically. 

   "The fact that her brain was healing is what brought her out of
a coma.  I don't mind if you bring horses here every day.  That's
fine with me, as long as she has appropriate therapy - physical
therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, medications and
everything else that is being done for her here." 

   Nikki, of Maple Grove, sustained head injuries in a car
accident June 17 near Fargo, N.D. Usually a stickler for making
everyone wear seat belts, she was unbelted when riding with her
aunt's fiance.

      Now she is gaining some fame as the girl who underwent "horse
therapy." St. Paul police brought patrol horses to visit her outside
the hospital at least five times. She was still in a deep coma six
weeks ago when  for the first time the horses watched over her,
nuzzled her and licked her face and feet. The next day she said her
first word: "Mama." 

   Nikki also had two visits from Callie, the horse that she
considers her own even though it belongs to her aunt in Wahpeton,
N.D. The kid positively beamed 10 days ago when she sat on Callie.

    Television and newspaper accounts have spread the story of
Nikki and the horses across the country. A Gillette Hospital
spokesman bemoaned the fact that the farther the story got from
home, the more it seemed that "horse therapy" was the best hope for
bringing Nikki around. 

   Horse lovers from near and far have sent cards, horse gear,
photographs of horses and even money to transport her horse to the

   Only a month ago, doctors were losing hope for Nikki's recovery
and recommended to her parents that she be moved to a nursing home.
But then she started responding to treatment. Her eyes followed
people; she tried to speak, and she could sometimes point to the
correct photograph of a named object. In the past two weeks, she
made significant gains in the two or three kinds of therapy she gets
each day, Gormley said.

    He expects that she may be sent home in a month and start
school immediately.

    That's the good news. The tougher news is this: "She'll still
need a lot of therapy for a very long time - many months, possibly
years - after she's discharged from here," Gormley said.

    He expects that she'll walk eventually, but perhaps with braces
or a cane. She's likely to find it hard to solve problems, in school
and in life, perhaps forever. She'll need a personal aide in school.
Movement and cognitive problems are likely to plague her all her
life. If all goes well, she could lead a fairly independent life,
the doctor said, "but whether she'll be able to manage all her
personal effects, I don't know." 

   Gormley said he fully understands that families of an injured
child will try anything that they think might help healing. "With
such a devastating injury, people don't care what helps," he said.
He has had no problem with families bringing in horses, faith
healers, witch doctors and many other nonmedical remedies, as long
as they don't interfere with what the medical teams are doing. 

   While he doesn't want to encourage false hopes among families,
he knows that healing is sometimes a mystery. Horse licks won't help
every patient, he said, but perhaps a special toy or blanket offers
comfort to a particular child. There are so many unknowns, he said.
Even the question of how much - or whether - healing is benefited by
therapy is debated by brain-injury specialists. Yet more and more
brain-injured children are recovering, thanks to medical

    "Maybe all of us want to think there's a magic cure out there,"
he said. "These injuries are devastating. Come to work with me for
one day, just one day, and you'll see why I'm such a safety nut.
Ride a bike; wear a helmet. Get in the car, just to go around the
corner; put on a seat belt. Ski; put on the helmet."

    He just doesn't want the word out that horse licks can cure
damaged brains.

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